Thursday, July 9, 2015

DIET | Echoes of Max Bircher-Benner (Family Comments)

Dr. Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner. Born
Aug. 22, 1867, died at 72, Jan. 24, 1939.
July 9, 2015 – My Mom, Hilda van Stockum, swore by Dr. Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner and his clinic in Zürich, the Privatklinik Bircher-Benner.

The Clinic was taken over by his two sons after he died and then was operated by a local government (the city or canton of Zürich).

Mom said that Dr. Bircher cured her mother, Olga Boissevain, of cancer. She subscribed to the Bircher-Benner magazine, Die Wendepunkt (The Turning Point), and translated many articles into English.

Dr. Bircher (whose name my mother pronounced BEER-hya) promoted a diet low in red meat and high in minimally processed food. He invented Müsli–also called Bircher-Müsli or Swiss Müsli –as an approximation of mother's milk.

The diet we grew up on was long on Bircher-Müsli and raw food, short on meat. We were the butt of jokes of our friends who would look at mushy food that Mom had prepared and ask: "What is THAT?"

When I would bring up the views of Dr. Bircher with Board-Certified American doctors they would scornfully dismiss the views of what they must have viewed as a Swiss quack. Nutrition was in the mid-20th century not exactly an obsession of American medical schools.

Dr. Bircher had a wide circle of fans, including my mother's Dutch family. I made several visits there and went through many earnest individual and group lectures on the value of exercise and minimally processed food. On my last visit (in 1963), I was told that a man I had met the day before, humorist A. J. Liebling of the New Yorker had left early, I think because he didn't like the fact that the food was so unprocessed. Libeling wrote about gourmet food, among other things. His gourmet taste showed. (In an earlier version of this post I misremembered the person as S. J. Perelman, also of the New Yorker; I mention this only because it is worth rereading George Plimpton's superb interview of Perelman published in 1963.)

Mom had the last laugh. She lived to be 98 and her six children are still alive, aged 71-81, which surely puts us ahead of our joint life expectancies.

One of many products paying homage to Dr.
Bircher-Benner and his Müsli.
And now science and industry are catching up to Dr. Bircher, as reported in The New York Times today by two dietary researchers who note that the nutritional guidelines of the past 35 years – to minimize dietary fat – have been changed by new 2005 dietary guidelines that have raised the maximum and have introduced a minimum for dietary fat of 20 percent of daily intake.

The new emphasis is on "minimally processed food".

Cue Dr. Max Bircher-Benner.

Thank you, Mom.

Comments via Email (2016)

Olga Marlin
: It´s true that all those bowls of fruit and nuts with a generous base of condensed milk, have proved their worth in the long run.

Brigid Marlin: Very interesting comments on Dr Bircher, we all grew up with him, so him seemed almost an extra grandfather – sometimes a bit of a nagger! Mother gave me a book of Bircher-Benner recipes in the 1980s and I showed the book back then to Stanley Kubrick, who was obsessed with eating in a healthy way. He never gave the book back–they hired a cook who was told to use vegetarian recipes. Randal's here [Brigid is visiting in Ottawa] and wants to comment!

Randal Marlin: The basic recipe for Mom's muesli was grated apple (skins on), lemon juice, sweetened condensed milk. Stir. Then you add unsalted nuts, whole grains, wheat germ, blueberries, strawberries, raisins or other dried fruit – the possible combinations are endless. you can adapt the add-ons to suit a gluten-free diet or whatever. A batch of muesli will keep for a reasonably long time in the refrigerator.

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